This is one of those games that back in that primary season when the schedule came out it was rock-solid orange and black for the Bengals in the win column. But a raft of injuries in the secondary and a surprising struggle to stop the run have made Sunday's game in Jacksonville (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) as unpredictable as a swing state.
The volatility can be seen in the Bengals.com media roundtable, which ranges from a big victory fashioned by red-hot quarterback Andy Dalton and his Bengals offense to a tight conquest decided by the brilliance of Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew and a mistake-free defense.
Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union, who has had a long and distinguished career covering everything NFL from Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain to Jacksonville's tarp, believes the Jaguars have gotten healthy just in time to give quarterback Blaine Gabbert time against Cincinnati's decimated secondary.
But Pete Prisco, the senior NFL voice for CBSSports.com and a former long-time Jags beat man, says it's a perfect storm for the Bengals because the week they are limping in the secondary matches the week they play one of the NFL's least effective passing games, and he continues to insist the Bengals are going on a winning streak that carries them into the Oct. 21 Sunday night home game against the Steelers.
And yet Paul Kuharsky, the AFC South reporter for ESPN.com, has been saying since the preseason that there is an illusion surrounding the Jags that they are worse than they really are. He believes they've got a shot to go 8-8 if healthy and this is one where they have a chance. And, maybe more importantly, the Jags see it as a critical game that can make their season in staving off 1-3 and getting to 2-2.
But then there is the Pro Football Hall of Fame scribe Len Pasquarelli and his take that there is no way getting around the gap in talent on the two rosters. Pasquarelli, of Fox TV in Atlanta, says the Jags can keep it close with MJD and a grinding defense, but it won't get them enough points to beat the Bengals.
Let's go around the table:
Gabbert is better coached than he was last year, but he is still very much a work in progress. He had something like 70 yards passing last week until he threw an 80-yarder in the last minute to beat the Colts. And their receivers are so young that they are going to struggle for a while until they get settled.
Basically, Bob Bratkowski, the new Jaguars defensive coordinator, switched jobs with Dirk Koetter, the former Jags offensive coordinator now in Atlanta. The Jags were 5-11 last year and 1-2 now and the Falcons are 3-0 after going to the playoffs, so obviously you can only coach so much.
But the Jaguars are getting back two of their starting offensive linemen after they missed the last two games (right tackle Cam Bradfield and left guard Eben Britton) and that should help give Gabbert more time because he's been getting a lot of pressure.
The defense hasn't been playing as well at it did last year and they won't have one of their best players in outside linebacker Daryl Smith, but they'll have their starting corners for the second straight week and that will make a difference.
THE EDGE: Jags, 23-20. I think this one comes down to how well Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton plays against a defense that makes you drive it and if you make a mistake, fine, then they'll win. But if he plays well, the Bengals win. I just see this is as a homefield advantage game and Jones-Drew feasts on defenses that have trouble stopping the run.
If there is one game where you don't have to have your secondary healthy and ready to go, this is it. The Jaguars just can't throw the ball and if they could, you wouldn't know it because they just don't let Gabbert do anything to win games.
They're stuck in that run-first, run-second thing with MJD and they never make anything happen. And the receivers aren't giving them much at all. Justin Blackmon has a lot of talent, but he runs sloppy routes.
Now if the Bengals can't stop the run, they're going to be in trouble but I just think their front seven matches up so well against Jacksonville. If the Jags don't get back their right tackle, Carlos Dunlap could have 14 sacks Sunday. And even with everyone healthy that's an edge for the Bengals, although I do see Jags left tackle Eugene Monroe handling Michael Johnson. Monroe is really good. Great feet.
I think the Bengals can score on these guys. Their linebackers are slow and their best one, Daryl Smith, isn't going to play. The Bengals have a lot of receivers and they'll double A.J. Green, but the Bengals have other guys that can hurt them, and the Jaguars pass rush has been non-existent.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 27-17. You know I'm picking the Bengals to go a long way and I think they go on a bit of a run here. I'm surprised that the defense hasn't played well. The linebackers just haven't got off any blocks. But their defense is going to play better and on Sunday they're going to face a defense that will make them go 12 plays, 80 yards, and Dalton is a guy that doesn't make many mistakes.
There's no question that Gabbert is better coached this year and he is more aware and making better decisions. But this is still MJD's team. And one of the great misnomers is that Mike Mularkey likes to throw the ball around. What he wants to establish is a power running game.
He got the nickname "Inspector Gadget" when he was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and a lot of that was because he could do so many things with wide receiver Antwaan Randle El. But everything was based off the run.
Mike's a good coach, but this is going to take time. The receivers are very young and haven't been very productive. This is not a terrible week for a team to have a limping secondary. They're feeding the ball to MJD 25 times a game. Everyone is talking about it's a throwing league, but look at Houston and how they're able to use both and be very explosive in play-action.
I think Jacksonville's defense is a little better than it was last year and I think a team always gets a little bit of a boost when there is a coaching change and you've got someone new in your ear.
THE EDGE: Bengals, 24-17. The Bengals have looked very good throwing the ball and I think that's going to be a problem for Jacksonville because they don't get much pressure on the passer. The way Jacksonville plays, they're not going to get blown out by anybody. They like to play ball control, keep games close, and hope they pull it out late. But in a game like that, it comes down to talent in the end and I just think the Bengals have more talent than they do.
Take away a dreadful final 20 seconds in the season opener, and the Jaguars might be the talk of the league with two last-minute wins and a 2-1 record. But they are 1-2 and an afterthought. I know it's fashionable to consider them terrible, but they are not.
It looks like both left guard Eben Britton and right tackle Cameron Bradfield will be back in the lineup and that should be a big boon. Tight end Marcedes Lewis has been blocking more than they'd like, so look for him to get involved in the passing game.
The Jaguars need to be less reliant on Maurice Jones-Drew and ask more of Blaine Gabbert, a more confident and effective quarterback than he was as a rookie. He's matured and better coached, but it's still a process that takes time.
I know the Bengals have given up a lot of yards and probably look at this as a chance to get on track against a middling, at best, offense. But the Jaguars surely see it as an opportunity to get that offense going.
THE EDGE: It's a huge game for the Jaguars. The difference between 2-2 and 1-3 is major and it's a chance to show growth.
I said in the preseason if they were healthy they could challenge 8-8. Though they are still without perhaps their best defender in outside linebacker Daryl Smith, I still believe they can. To do so they have to win a game like this at home. I don't pick, but I certainly think they have a good opportunity here.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As Bengaldom braces for an angst-strewn Sunday that could have as many as four cornerbacks on the inactive list (Leon Hall, Nate Clements, Jason Allen, Dre Kirkpatrick), now's a good time to give thanks that they tossed one-year deals the way of Terence Newman and Adam Jones, your starting cornerbacks.
But as Newman said this week, they've already done it. They not only started last week with Clements moving to safety, they went all the way. Newman played all the snaps, Jones 96 percent, and they held up well on the outside against Robert Griffin III and the Redskins receivers, a more formidable passing game than what the Jags have.
Before quarterback Gabbert unleashed an 80-yard TD pass to backup receiver Cecil Shorts III in the last minute last week against the Colts, he was averaging less than five yards per throw. After that throw it is 5.9, but Shorts is the only wide receiver that has a TD catch, and running back Maurice Jones-Drew and tight end Marcedes Lewis are the second- and third-leading receivers.
Rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon, the first receiver drafted, has been no A.J. Green with four catches and his longest for 13 yards.
The fear, of course is that the Jags are going to be able to finally unleash their talent against the undermanned secondary. Heightening the Bengaldom angst is the visage of former long-time Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski now moving chess pieces for a Jacksonville offense sensing mismatches against a secondary that may be forced to put safeties like Jeromy Miles, Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker in the slot.
The Jags have yet to show anybody that can exploit it, but the Bengals don't want to be the ones to find out. Crocker hasn't played a snap since the Wild Card Game and has practiced just twice all season, so who knows what he can offer?
But what the Bengals do know about Crocker is that he can get people lined up and he's not going to let anybody get behind him, which is exactly how Gabbert and Shorts beat the Colts, unbelievably, in the last 45 seconds from their own 20 and trailing, 17-16.
Gabbert made a great rifle throw inside the numbers to Shorts at about his 40 that was so quick that it caught the Indy DBs flat-footed, but why they were so bunched and shallow with a one-point lead to allow a catch-and-run TD is something the Bengals hope a guy like Crocker won't allow. No cheap TDs, and they should be OK. The Bengals are not looking for 10 tackles from Crocker. Just a cool head on passing downs so Gabbert doesn't stun them.
So given the problems in the secondary and against the run, the obvious formula is for the Bengals offense to take over the game. The running back that has a run longer than his name may tilt this one with Cincinnati's BenJarvus Green-Ellis going against Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew.
Cincinnati's problems against the run have been well documented and MJD's 5.3 yards per rush isn't a good match for the Bengals' 5.8 against. That would make Gabbert's strong arm even more dangerous.
Gabbert's big knock is his happy feet in the pocket and although the Jags O-line is back to normal after two weeks of injuries, the AFC-leading Bengals sackers could cause Gabbert big problems if they can get to him in the pocket.
Jacksonville hasn't exactly been granite against the run. The Jags are giving up 4.4 yards per carry. They don't give up the big one, but as BJGE may like to note they've allowed five rushing touchdowns inside the 9.
The numbers say Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton should have a good day. The Jags have just two sacks and one interception in their three games, and are allowing opposing QBs a passer rating of 86.9.
But it will all get back to the run. The Jags are going to sit there and let Dalton dink and dunk under their deep coverages until they have to bring a safety down if the Bengals get the running game going. And if the Bengals can stop MJD with seven players, it's going to take heat off their undermanned beat-up DBs.
When the dust clears, it's not Dalton vs. Gabbert, but BJGE vs. MJD in their battle of consonants.